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Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Shapeways Road: A Second Mile

This post is a sequel to the post: The Road to Shapeways

Steve Cole writes:
When we opened our store on Shapeways on 20 June, we had said we would add more ships on the first of every month. That meant that the next uploads would be on 1 July, only 10 days later. Given the problems we had, obstacles we found, and lessons we learned I made a command decision to delay the second batch to 10 July, which would split the time between 20 June and 1 August. I told Jean, who said that she had been meaning to talk to me because the week of the fourth of July is a retail dead zone when people are spending time with family not money on hobbies. She changed my plan to 11 July because sculptors would be working over the weekend and she would need a day to upload whatever landed on her desk Monday morning. The sculptors didn't care why we made the delay; they were just glad to get the extra time. That paid off with a huge 30-item release.

The first stage of developing the second release batch was a combination of expanding the current empires and using models already on file. Will McCammon easily turned his D7B into the D6S (or so he thought), and we asked him to upload his existing two-pod freighter. Matthew Lawson already had Omega, Seltorian, and Frax ships on file so he just had to tweak the existing models to account for things we had learned and upload them. Steve Zamboni had been scheduled to provide the two small civilian tugs, and we loved his Tholian Web Tender so much that we assigned him to do other Tholian ships as well. Gary Pollock had already done several Hydrans, and Chris Nasipak was working on the Lyrans.

Many lessons had been learned, some of them not quite well enough, as it turned out. Nothing is as easy as it seems. The freighter Will did for us in metal had to be modified to print in plastic. Endless small details like stand holes and phaser bumps had to be checked and re-checked. The D6S that was simple to create failed again and again in pre-checks, even when it was a combination of already approved elements. Will pushed hard, learned a lot of lessons about sensor dishes, and got the D6S to work. A ten-minute job had taken over four hours.

Jean said she wanted a monster, and Matthew Lawson had one already done, the incredibly dangerous Igneous. We decided to offer this in three sizes to give price options, then coordinated with Steven Petrick to have him create alternative rules for the SFB scenario to account for multiple monsters of various sizes.

The big thing we learned was the concept of a "new start" such as a new empire (Tholians, Hydrans, Lyrans) or a new ship type (fighters, gunboats). Any new start requires that a lot of work go into the first ship and the overall concept, including work by Will McCammon (who as chief engineer set the scale), Jean Sexton (marketing), and Steve Cole (universe background, sculptor coordination, and production). It turned out later that Leanna Cole (accounting and finance) also had a major part to play in each "new start" that would leave us waiting hours for her input (because that's how much work we had to ask her to do getting answers).

Jean decided that since almost every Hydran ship had fighters, the fighters had to go on sale with the ships. That caused a major uproar (and cost us the Klingon C8 which was pushed back into August because of the extra work this caused Will McCammon). Starting fighters required lots of research with the existing metal miniatures, what materials would work on Shapeways on such small pieces with smaller points and bumps, the sprue design (and the number of pieces). In a very real sense, we had to stop and get a pretty good grip on the Federation and Klingon fighters before we could finish the Hydrans. The same thing happened with the gunboats. The parts had to be designed, as well as the sprue, and that took a lot of hours. Then for reasons nobody understood the gunboat sprue worked on the Tholians but not the Klingons.

Starting a new empire, on the other hand, requires developing a look and feel, as well as the design of each greeble (bump or other detail), and establishing a scale for the ship. The sculptors learned to build a hull but not populate it with details until the size was established. Since we hadn't learned this quite yet in late June, lots of ships had to be essentially done over, but the sculptors quickly learned to keep the size-critical feature details separate and add them only once the hull was sized.
Some things we had considered doing got delayed. Will was going to do the Klingon C8 but pushed it back to make time for the "new starts" in this product cycle. Steve Zamboni had done the Kzinti dreadnought that it turned out we didn't need, but rather than release it as the only Kzinti ship in the range we held off to have additional ships done for a later release date, perhaps September or October. Matthew Lawson had some Federation fighters done, but we had so much trouble with the Hydrans that we decided to hold the Feds until we could design, scale, and release all of the drone-armed (Klingon, Kzinti, multiple Fed) fighters together. Chris Nasipak got his Lyran destroyer finished and delivered four more ships to us at the last minute (leaving us no time for public comment), but we decided that enough crazy things had happened that the Lyrans deserved a thorough cross-fleet review before any of their ships were released. They'll be along on the first of August.
We learned that lots of things we knew were not true. For example, it's easy to scale-up a 3788 ship to 3125 (just increase it 21%) but then you have to go back and update the stand hole, which needs to be the same size in both scales. When you upload a ship to Shapeways there is an automatic check, but in some cases a ship that was uploaded a few minutes earlier will change from approved to not-approved as the computer grinds through all of the details. One sculptor uploaded a green-light ship only to watch it change from green-light to yellow-light to red-light before his very eyes. (One would assume that approved is going to stay approved, but that ship didn't work that way.) In other cases, ships were "as green as Kermit the frog" but failed the manual checks that are only done when a customer actually orders the first copy. That resulted in a couple of upset customers having to reorder ships once we fixed them.
Meanwhile, I struggled through the process to keep track of which sculptor was how far along on which ships and what did he need to finish it. Because we were learning the system, that shoved a lot of work onto Chief Engineer McCammon who had to design the fighter and PF sprues, and check everybody's ships and scale, all while trying to finish his own ships. Every day it seemed we added and/or dropped a ship from the process. The original company policy was not to put on Shapeways anything we were selling in metal, but after Leanna spent a day reviewing sales figures she (24 hours before the upload time) cleared us to upload several of the 3788 ships we were  holding. The sculptors worked quickly to get the extra files to us, files that in some cases took extra work.
It was not over when it was over. Hours after we uploaded one item, word came from Shapeways that sample copies the sculptor ordered a week earlier (for his own amusement) had failed to print. We would have expected that report to come much earlier than it did. So we had to jump through hoops to get that item replaced the morning after the release. Then it wouldn't print again, and then again.
We have learned a lot, but we have the team trained and we're trying to set up a system that runs like the Department of Agriculture doing the month's crop reports, not like NASA doing a one-time heroic Mars shot with crisis management.


The Tholian Patrol Corvette is available 
on ADB's store on Shapeways.